Students volunteer to spend summer advancing in math

From the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

SANTA CRUZ – Instead of shooting paint-ball guns with friends or loafing at home, 15-year-old Nash McQuaide has spent a chunk of summer break hunkered down trying to solve algebraic equations.

Shmuel Thaler/Sentinel

Shmuel Thaler/Sentinel

McQuaide, who will be a sophomore at Harbor High School in the fall, bombed the second semester of Algebra I last year. He showed up at the Algebra Bridge Academy in July to make up the units, but shortly discovered with some extra help and encouragement he actually enjoys working through the computations.

“Everything started to click here. Before I was horrible,” Nash said. “Now I can solve equations in my head. This isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

McQuaide is one of about 62 students participating in the Algebra Bridge Academy taught by renowned CSU Monterey Bay math professor Hongde Hu, who has received several national awards for improving math scores of struggling students.

Hu also teaches an annual algebra academy each January to Pajaro Valley eighth-graders through a program established by Granite Rock Co. Inc.

He says programs such as the Algebra Academy are important in turning the tide on the 80 percent of community college students who require remedial math. Hu says 50 percent of California State University students need remedial math classes when they arrive after high school.

The academy at Harbor High is a four-week program initiated this summer in which students study, practice and get tested on algebra for six hours each day. The academy ends next week.

The program packs a year’s worth of algebra into a month.

Students pick up the material better than they do during the school year, Hu says, because they work in groups and receive constant one-on-one guidance from the six or so teachers and volunteers walking around the room.

They take plenty of breaks, which Hu says helps concentration levels.

There’s no homework, however, quizzes are given every day. There will be a final exam next week. Those who pass can move on to geometry.

“We want them to do math with confidence,” Hu said. “The ones who have confidence do it longer. That’s one of the beauties of confidence.”

Long algebra equations and formulas – jumbled with numbers and letters – were confusing for Gaby Perez, 15, who also failed second semester last year, until attending the academy.

Everything is starting to make sense, and Perez says she’s ready for geometry in the fall.

“I’m understanding why this equals that and how to check it to make sure it’s right,” she said. “I’m learning that there’s different methods to get an answer. There’s not just one way to get an answer.”

Harbor High math teacher Rick Barlow said some students don’t do well in algebra because they’re scared of numbers.

“What holds them back isn’t their ability,” Barlow said. “It’s their perception of math.”

The academy includes several Branciforte and Shoreline middle school students who hope to skip algebra as freshmen and go straight to geometry.

Starting geometry as a freshman allows a student to advance to calculus by their senior year, which is preferred by the more prestigious colleges.